Thursday, January 6, 2011

The adventure continues. ...

2 December, Warsaw, Poland

Yesterday I arrived at the Krakow bus station in time for the 10:15 am bus back to Sandomierz ... it had been cancelled. So had been the 11:30 buses to Sandomierz and to nearby Tarnobrzeg. My best bet seemed to be the 3:15 pm Sandomierz-Krakow turn around; surely by then the roads would be okay. Right? So, off I headed for the ladies’ rest room, thinking about how to pass the next four or so hours, when over the PA I heard a bus announcement that included the destination “Tarnobrzeg.” A quick glance at the board showed me a 10:45 bus that I hadn’t noticed before; it was leaving in 10 minutes. But I wasn’t getting on any bus without a potty break first. And thank heavens I took it because the four-hour trip to Tarnobrzeg was without a break -- stops were passengers off, passengers on only. Once on board I sent an SMS message to my friend Hala who arranged for her husband Michal to pick me up at the bus station. As I got my suitcase from the baggage area, Michal was right there to grab it. He took everything to the car while I ran to the depot bathroom. The male attendant wasn’t happy that I didn’t have enough money (I gave him what few coins I had but it was less than his 1.5 zloty fee). Since I’d already used the facilities, I didn’t really care. I left.

Back in Czermin, I enjoyed spaghetti with Michal’s homemade sauce, a hot shower and time to breath. We all agreed that I’d take the bus to Warsaw today rather than Friday as I’d originally planned. More snow was on the way ... and it came. All the car tire ruts and footsteps from last night were obliterated by new fallen snow. Michal shoveled while Hala fixed breakfast, he used the snowblower while we finalized getting ready. Hala called the bus station to confirm the 9 am bus to Warsaw was traveling.

Hala’s brother-in-law has a tractor with a plow and plows the village lane to the ridge road. He’d already been by when Hala and I hit the road gently. The ridge road hadn’t been plowed so we followed the tracks of previous drivers, getting to the main road and eventually the Sandomierz bus station without incident. And my bus was only five minutes late. He opened the doors, called to four of us waiting to hurry on board, then handled ticketing as he steered his ‘land cruiser’ bus down a snowy two-way street with parking on both sides. I am still amazed that we didn’t hit anybody or anything. No on got on at the tiny station where we often get a break, but we almost got stuck in the deep snow of the unplowed bus yard. We only got one break -- five minutes in Radom (usually it’s 10 to 15 minutes here). Four women took off for the depot as fast as the snow covered sidewalk allowed. We all got back to the bus in time. And we arrived in Warsaw on time.

5 December, Washington, DC, USA

Like all good Minnesotans, first the weather report. Warsaw: Despite heavy snowfall, sidewalks were amazingly clear as I walked from Hala’s daughter Marta’s (my old) apartment to the center of Warsaw on Friday. You just didn’t see that in years past. I mean not only shopkeepers and homeowners shoveling, but city crews scraping and digging to clear paths. I’d heard that both the mayor and prime minister were being blamed for the excessive snowfall, which came quite fast and heavy and made driving a challenge for some time. But one or both must’ve gotten things going as both streets and sidewalks were eminently usable on Friday.

I spent the day literally walking ... looking for a navy turtleneck, thank you gifts for my US trip and an extra novel to read while traveling ... locating warm coffee shops to recuperate and lunch for sustenance (if you can call McDonald’s food sustenance. My first McDonald’s meal in years, maybe even a decade) ... visiting at least a couple friends that I didn’t want to miss (Texas-born Gina before she took off to Minnesota [!!!] to visit her sister and Maryla who had recently returned from a successful treatment in the Ukraine). It was very dark and snow was steadily falling again as I sat in a taxi in traffic on the way back to the flat seven hours after I’d left. My legs wouldn’t take another 40 minute trek.

Before setting out in the morning, I had checked to see how dear the airport hotel would be; the price was very reasonable. Then I recalled that I have a free night available, and the decision was made in the taxi. I would go to the hotel that night so I would have no worries about getting there at 5 am. I might even sleep a few hours. Marta’s roommate Piotr had told me that the airport has all the latest snow equipment; he’d watched them as he waited to talk off for Egypt recently. So I had a sense that if I got to the airport, I’d be one my way. Piotr drove me to the airport in Marta’s new Smart car, my first ride in this tiny but heavy vehicle.

More snow overnight but I could see from my hotel window that the plows were making excellent headway on the runways. Long story short, lots of snow in Vienna too. But both flights were on time, and I made the mad dash through the Vienna airport in plenty of time to join the long and unruly line of passengers for Austrian’s NYC and DC flights. The overseas flight was a long 9 1/2 hours but reasonably comfortable in a Boeing 767, smaller than the Airbuses that I’m used to. Winding through the corral toward Customs/Immigration at Dulles went pretty quickly considering the hundreds of people in the “US Citizens” line. My friend Regina was waiting right outside. The sky was blue, the sun shining and the temp pretty moderate for December. I spent the rest of the day catching up with Regina and her sons. A wonderful way to start my stay.

Today in DC: Much colder than I had expected, probably a combo of humidity and high winds. I was up to five layers this morning as Peggy (the friend I was staying with( and I stood across from the Dupont Circle Farmer’s Market and hawked Dupont Circle Village 2011 pictorial calendars, a fundraiser for the village association; Peggy’s president. Between my multiple layers and the felt liners in the bottom of my new snow boots, I actually didn’t get cold. Ditto in the evening when we and Peggy’s friend/neighbor Mary hiked a couple of cold mlles to the National Zoo to see “Zoolights.” Barren trees were beautifully outlined in steady or blinking lights -- one grouping blinked in sync to the Nutcracker Suite. An assortment of animals were created in colorful lights, some even animated. A hummingbird’s wings flapping as its beak entered a flower ... a crouching frog leaping into an arc, then dove into a pond ... ants marching toward the awaiting snout of an anteater ... big cats frolicking on a hillside. We went into the Great Ape House and saw a few of the zoo’s gorilla population, mostly napping but impressive nonetheless. It was a long uphill walk to the zoo and back ... I forgave myself for not going to the Y during the day.

6 December, Washington, DC

Whew! My final interview with the Director’s Office is over. It was a group thing with all of the top managers; the director joined us for the last 20 minutes or so. I think it went well, but as I’ve said before, who am I to judge? We seemed to all relate to each other well -- they had good questions, I was thoughtful in my answers. My horoscope said I’d meet someone new today and that we’d have an unseen connection. That could have been almost any of the five people in the group although the director and I have a bit of “shared past.” He’s from Chicago, where I went to college, and he worked as a marketing manager at General Mills in Minneapolis in the mid 70s. He recalled my former employer, The St. Paul Companies, in glowing terms.

The process is for matching candidates to positions. January’s matches are done. June is next (then October). I should hear in four to six weeks. Thank you one and all for your support!

Afterwards, I had dinner and caught up with four friends from my various assignments with Booz Allen. Tomorrow I finally meet my accountant face to face, then lunch with Macedonia friends Elizabeth and Zoran and off to the airport.

12 December, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Ana cooks! Who’d a thunk it? This is the same friend who had planned to make the kitchen in her new apartment in Skopje a closet. But newly married and living in Amsterdam, she’s cooking and doing it well. She made delicious baked chicken dinner tonight.

I stayed overnight with Ana and Archie, giving us lots of time to catch up (Ana) and get to know each other a little (Archie and his visiting brother and niece). Ana and Archie have a lovely apartment with typical Amsterdam staircases -- very narrow and windy. I was glad not to have to use them often. They live about 15 minutes from the airport, a blessing since Ana and I both had to be there very early the next morning to catch our flights, she to Skopje, I to Minneapolis.

14 December, Minneapolis MN USA

Home at last! My late mother would never have believed that I would tire of travel. But I’m pooped, and I have one more trip to make before year end. I leave Wednesday for Michigan to celebrate our uncle’s 90th birthday along with my brother and sister. I’m hoping the weather will cooperate.

20 December, Minneapolis

And once again, I’m home. My short stay in Minneapolis saw me accomplish a few things, like starting to put away all of the dishes etc. that had been removed so furniture could be moved so the living and dining room and hallway walls could be painted while I was in Poland. The painting looks nice ... can’t wait to get my artwork back up. Right now I have huge blank walls. Also ordered a standing rib roast for Christmas -- I’m the cook.

The flight to Chicago and drive to Jackson MI went smoothly. I arrived in plenty of time to meet my brother Dan at his gate, then we picked up the rental car he’d arranged and started our drive toward Jackson. We stopped in St. Joseph/Benton Harbor for the night on Wednesday, arriving at almost 11 pm. Having forgotten that there is an hour difference between Chicago (Central) and Michigan (Eastern) time, we ended up with only one possibility for dinner -- the Burger King drive-through. Oh, joy. On Friday evening Dan and I drove to the Detroit airport to pick up our sister Barbara. It’s been a while since all three of us were together.

Uncle Frank, who turns 90 tomorrow, and Aunt Betty, who is already 91, look a lot better than when I saw them last summer. Aunt Betty is on some pretty strong pain killers now so not complaining at all about pain. Thus Uncle Frank has fewer complaints too; no competition any more.

We celebrated with lunch on Saturday. Aunt Betty’s nephew John and his wife Nancy joined us at Uncle Frank’s favorite restaurant. Everyone had his/her favorite dish -- Uncle Frank chowing down on barbecued ribs and French fries and Aunt Betty doing serious damage to a shrimp platter. For dessert we ordered a mega-chocolate cake and ice cream dish that was just the right size for seven spoons.

Since Dan’s flight back to the CA desert was early this morning, we three drove back to Chicago last night and watched an exciting but disappointing Steelers-Jets football game at a sports bar on the near north side in Chicago. The Steelers Club of Chicago packs the place for the games ... most of the tables were reserved for various fan groups. Our team lost by a slim margin, but we had a good time cheering, watching and eating and being together. Dan and I dropped Barbara at Union Station where she’s get a Big Blue Bus back to Minneapolis, then headed for our hotel by the airport.

21 December, Minneapolis

Fifth snow emergency of this winter season ... and it’s not even Christmas yet.

24 December, Minneapolis

Snowing again. We’ll have a fresh coat of snow for a beautifully white Christmas. It was a little tricky driving to my 7:15 am water exercise class and on to last minute errands. Cannot believe that I miscounted the number/type of light switch plates I needed. I wanted new ones for the newly painted rooms. Dealing with Home Depot on Christmas Eve for one purchase under $3 -- so I bought a poinsettia ($3 on sale) too. No Christmas decorations but at least a cheery flower.

My friend Marilou and I are doing Chinese for lunch and a movie afterwards, then I’ll be back here putting finishing touches on prep for tomorrow. My sister Barbara, niece, Tomery and nephew Christopher will be here for dinner. I’m making a standing rib roast, Barbara’s favorite, as well as several dishes from our childhood. Picked up the roast this morning before Home Depot. I’ve been preparing things all week so I won’t have to do it all at the last minutes. Yesterday I made a batch of shortbread using my Scottish grandmother’s recipe. It’s the simplest and most delicious dessert on earth. See for yourself:

Granny Fisher’s Shortbread

By hand or with a mixer, cream together one pound salted butter that is at room temp (do not allow to get melty) and one-half pound sugar.

Gradually work in two pounds of regular white flour using a strong wooden or other spoon. DO NOT USE YOUR HANDS. That melts the butter and makes for bad shortbread.

You may need slightly more flour. Just keep stirring and cutting in flour until you have small pellets. Divide into three 8 or 9 inch pie pans. Pat down firmly with back of spoon. Surface should be flat and even. Prick surface 7-8 times.

Bake at 350 for about an hour. The shortbread is done with it begins to pull from the sides and is golden brown on top.

While warm, use thin-bladed knife to cut each pie pan into 16 pieces. Let cool on rack. Once cool, wrap pieces in waxed paper, then aluminum foil. Keeps in cool, dry place for a month or more.

28 December, Minneapolis

The shortbread was beautiful and delicious. So was the roast, but the cooking odor still lingers in the condo. I sent most of the leftovers home with my sister since Christopher is living with her and would scarf them down in a heartbeat. Yesterday we three had lunch, then I took Chris shopping for his Christmas presents. I usually buy him clothes but cannot do that without having him along. He’s too hard to fit -- 6’7” (2 meters) with very long arms. We got some sport shirts, tee-shirts and a classy fleece vest, all with his job in mind. He’s now a full-time customer service rep at Costco in St. Louis Park, rather than the part-time employee he’d been before. He likes the company and job and has his eye on a supervisory position when the right one opens. We’re all happy to have him back and fully employed in this uncertain economy.

Today my friend Janet and I are driving up to Brainerd; she’ll visit her son and his family and I’ll visit the Hagens. We’ll stay at Janet and Ed’s cabin and check on the birds, roof and utilities and will return sometime tomorrow afternoon. An ice storm is predicted for Thursday -- argh! But at least I won’t have to leave the condo if I don’t want to.

31 December, Minneapolis

Brainerd was great. The Hagens are all doing well, and it’s always fun seeing David and Heidi’s three young ‘uns, each different but all full of energy. Janet and I stayed overnight at the cabin, always renewing. Then drove back with a coffee sstop part way. We agreed that the route we took home, which is more convenient for their cabin, is a little less boring than the route to where the Hagens live. Minnesota is as flat as Poland!

This afternoon Marilou and I went shopping for chairs for my living room and out to lunch at Pittsburgh Blue, a steak house in the suburbs where she’s not only eaten well but received exemplary service in the past. I was curious about the name as the Pittsburgh Steeler’s colors are gold and black. I learned that it’s how a steak is cooked, apparently made popular in Pittsburgh, something I didn’t know. It’s charred on the outside and cold and rare/raw inside. Sounds like how my sister Barbara -- and Marilou -- like their steaks.

Oh, I did find chairs -- actually two dining room chairs upholstered with an oatmeal colored microfiber fabric. They look and fit nicely.

Now I’m off to St. Paul for dinner with three friends from my St. Paul Companies’ days.

Happy New Year!

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